Friday, December 26, 2014

Ten Years On

Bert was the manager at a gay resort known as Turtle Cove, half way between Cairns and Port Douglas. R and I stayed there in the nineties and had a great time. Bert was a good manager and looked after his staff well. From Turtle Cove he moved on to manage a resort on a Thai island, I forget which one, and was there when the Boxing Day tsunami hit ten years ago. I believe, as at 2012, he is back managing Turtle Cove.

I may have published his personal account before, but it would be many years ago. Bert is Dutch born and English is not his first language, so  there may be a few odd sentences but have a read of his gripping experience on the day.


Bert's story:

Waves from Hell

It is about 8 am on Boxing Day 2004 and I am in the resort restaurant
checking the breakfast staff. The staff asked me if I heard that
muffled bang just before, but I did not and no one thought any more
of it. A guest who came later for breakfast said that his bed shook a
bit at that time. But the weather was brilliant with clear skies and
the sea right besides us was like a lake.

At 10.15 am. I attended the annual meeting of members who own houses
on our property and our Company takes care of. The chairman opened
the meeting and just finished the attendance record at 10.30 am, when
we heard this enormous rumble. It sounded like a 747 jumbo jet at
full throttle taking of on the beach about 50 meters away. The sound
was so loud that all of us jumped up and ran for the beach expecting
a plane crash. All we saw was water rushing away from the beach and
sucking sand with and just a swell was to be seen. But on the far
horizon we saw a white line about a centimeter high and it was clear
that it was a never ending wave breaking. Only then did we realize
what was about to come our way. Most of us started running along the
beach to get the many guests, children and staff spectators of the
beach and to the little hill on the other side of the resort.
Although we knew that it was going to be big, we never thought it to
be a "Tsunami". Guest and staff were slow to move, after all with the
spectacle at the horizon coming to us at a fast rate and getting
bigger and bigger, who would want to miss that scene. Our screaming
and shouting made some impact and only when it got close, they
started to run.

A few of us were on the north side of our peninsular and ran for the
hill on that side, but by then two of us realized that we were to
late and would never make it in time. I took shelter behind a massive
casuarina tree and another guest took the smaller tree besides me.

Next, an enormous wave rolled over the dunes and split on either side
of me. The tree grunted like if it was going to snap and when I
looked to the right of me the guest was gone, I did not have time to
count my lucky stars, because the sand was being washed from under my
feet and slowly I sagged down the sand.

The next wave was a few seconds later and as I looked up, it split
way above me at least 10 meters. I did not have to worry about the
tree snapping, as I was taken like tissue paper in the wind. I had
the presence of mind to take as much air as my lungs would hold and
disappeared under water. I was tossed, turned and rolled under water
and had no idea what was up or down, but could feel that I was going
at a massive speed. My lungs were about to bursts and I knew that
time was running out for me. I opened my eyes briefly to see where
the light and surface would be and without thinking I put my hand
together and stretched my arms, using my hands like a rudder pointed
up. I shot up and briefly got my head out of the water, enough time
to suck in fresh air and again down I went.

I have still no idea how many times I went up and down, but finally I
stayed up. When I looked around me I was close to the little Island
about 700 meters away from us in the bay. The sea around me was like
a carpet of debris and realized that being hit by any of  if could
injure me badly, but still grabbed what ever was floating as to at
least give me time to get my breath back.

Right besides me was a long tail boat on its side and yet no matter
how hard I tried, the debris in between us prevented me from getting
even close to it. However the boat's seat cushion came close enough
to grab and I pushed it under my chest, to help me to float. The
little Island was very close and I tried desperately to swim for it,
but at an instant I was dragged away from it and swirled in a big
circle towards the land beside our peninsula.

Next I was dragged back to our beach and was happy to see the hill
coming towards me at a fast rate, but realized that water that goes
up must go down again. Before I knew what happened I was taken like a
speed boat back to the point where I had left our Island in the first
place and shot over the 200 meters peninsula in to the "Andaman
Ocean".

I desperately grabbed for palm leaves and tree branches, but they
ripped straight through my hands with the force of the speed. All the
debris from the bay joined me and as far as I could see our resort
floating around me. I heard some cries for help in the distance and
could see two of my staff members.

As my cushion life saver (so far) kept me afloat. I tried to swim to
them to help them, but the massive amount of debris prevented me from
doing so and I was steadily dragged towards the horizon where we had
seen the first wave come from. I then realized that obviously the sea
was settling down again.

The big problem now was to get myself back to shore, blocked by the
carpet of anything that floats. Considering that the whole resort was
build out of wood, thatch and natural materials it took me for ever
to claw my way back through the debris and to shore. I dragged my
self on the beach and checked for injuries, being totally amazed that
I only had a few scratches and a sore left leg that must have been
hit by something.

How I could have gone at high speed under water one way and on my
return above water without being smashed into the many trees and
debris will remain a puzzle to me for ever. My watch was still
happily ticking away and checking the time, could not believe that I
would have struggling for live for about 3.5 hours.

When I got over the dunes there were a few member houses still
standing, others half demolished or gone and looking back to the main
resort, there was nothing but emptiness, some bend over palm trees
and concrete slabs.

The only building left on the grounds was the two story reception
building in a big pile. But not a single person to be seen anywhere
and thus feared the very worst.  I walked straight away to the bay
side to see if there was any one there and found no one. Walking
along the beach was like being ship wrecked on a deserted Island.

And then I saw two house owners coming from the hill where I was
supposed to be in the first place.

They told me that most of our 170 guests and staff were on the hill
behind the resort and that we had some badly and many with small
injuries. Most were not willing to come down the hills in fear of an
aftershock, some came down and collected whatever food and liquid
scattered around and buried in the sand, to take up the hill as we
felt that we would be there for while.

All communication devices were gone and calling the outside world was
not possible. After making a quick survey of the damage and finding
only one body jammed under the rubble we went up the hill to prepare
for maybe the longest night we could imagine. There I found the
Journalist for South East Asia of the "Australian" newspaper who had
a house and was staying with us for Xmas. She had a mobile that
worked, as she managed to get up the hill in time. She was contacted
by Barry (Ex Australian Army Officer) who takes care of my business
in Bangkok, to let us know that he already had contacted the
Australian Embassy and his Thai army contacts. As it was now late
afternoon, rescue would come early next morning.

We spend the night on the hill trying to sleep care for the wounded
and reflect on the past day. We now knew that 13 people were not
accounted for and missing. The first helicopter circled over us at
about 6.20 am and shortly after, three more arrived and landed on the
beach, all wounded and families were taken off. We found one more
body and by early afternoon all of us were evacuated by boat, leaving
behind the devastation of a nature resort that once was.

Most of the guest and staff who did not miss anyone traveled onwards
to go to there respective homes or onward destinations. We went to
the main temple in the close by village of Kuraburi, which was set up
as the main rescue and command centre. Whole communities spend their
time there as there was no where for them to go after their villages
were wiped of the face of the earth. Thais are an amazing people, as
within one day cloth and other house hold articles came in from all
over the local area from people who could least afford it.

I spend the next 5 days from early morning to late evening viewing
every corpse that came in from our Island to identify and process the
deceased guest and staff from our resort. It seemed to be a never
ending process and it became more difficult as days went on, because
of the further de-composing of bodies. I could and would not describe
the state and smell of the corpses after 5 days in the water, where
the only possible identification could be done by jewelry or other
identifiable items with the corpses. We have found 12 of our people
and only one baby is still missing, most likely never to be found
anymore.

Now I am back in Bangkok having lost absolutely everything on the
Island besides my life, but when I think and see what others went
through, I count my lucky stars once more. The owner of the resort is
at present at a loss of what to do next and I may go back next week
to access and consult him on the next step to be taken.

Bert Gerbrands

10 comments:

  1. Andrew I remember this terrible time. How times flies it was 10 years. It was seriuos disaster.

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    1. Yes, ten years has gone quickly. We are also remembering the fortieth anniversary of Cyclone Tracy in Darwin.

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  2. What a vivid account; certainly reminds me of the horror so many experienced.

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    1. Victor, the most remarkable thing I thought was that he was in the water for over three hours.

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  3. Ten years!!
    What an amazing account and no doubt a horrifying experience.

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    1. 'Tis pretty amazing Fen, and horrifying for so many.

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  4. An incredible first person account. Such a lucky man. But oh, how very, very sad...

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    1. EC, it says something that thousands were killed and I probably would have guessed a few hundred.

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  5. How lucky he was to survive such a mind numbing tragedy. It certainly doesn't seem like ten years has passed, it is so fresh in my mind still. Cyclone Tracey too, hubby had relatives in Darwin at the time and couldn't contact them for so very long, eventually found out they were holidaying in Qld so were safe.

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    1. River, Sister had a newly published book about Cyclone Tracy, and even though she said she would lend it to me to finish reading after I was about half way through it at her place, I have downloaded it to my Kindle. $4, nothing really. Your recount must have been similar for so many, but then no communication to inform people. How different are today's disasters, with live tweets.

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